I woke up a couple of days ago dreaming of a burning house. I was inside the house, but I wasn’t trying to get out. I wasn’t even particularly disturbed. I had closed the door to my room, trying to ignore the growing conflagration in the rest of the structure, apparently worried only about the collection of books on my shelves.
My first waking thought was: “My house is burning down with me in it.”
And I knew the dream wasn’t really about a house. It was about me, my aging body, and the fact that there truly is no way to escape. It’s burning down with me in it, and I just ignore it. I close the door and try not to think about it.
The dream may also be about the state of our world. Now that there’s no Donald Trump shenanigans to fixate on and now that COVID-19 is becoming something that is no longer an immediate threat to my life (Yay, vaccine!), I’m seeing more clearly the generally disastrous state of things—the racism and the misogyny and the poverty and the precarious climate and the probability of further pandemics and the belligerent ignorance and all the myriad manifestations of inequality and injustice that cluster on our borders and fester in our cities and towns. Our house is burning down with us in it. And we close the doors and try to pretend it isn’t happening. When some of us shout “fire,” others just look around inside their own rooms and shrug, ignoring the rising heat and all the closed doors.
What to do?
As for my aging body, I intend to pay more attention to exercise and other forms of self-care.
As for the world, I intend to emerge from my COVID isolation and keep saying what I see and what I know and writing stories about it. I may even occasionally shout, “Fire!”
I struggle most days, in the midst of this pandemic, to edit my next book, to prepare it for publication, to write the next story after this one. I rarely turn out more than a few hundred words a day and sometimes none at all. I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Why does it matter that I write? Why does it matter that I write this particular story?
For one thing…if I should die of this damn coronavirus thing, I don’t want to leave behind an unfinished manuscript.
But that’s not enough. Why is this story something I want to finish?
What is it about?
It’s about humanity. About all the things that may or may not be “human nature.” About our diversity and how diversity is the bedrock of survival.
It’s about a woman who thinks, because she is biracial, that she is nothing. And then discovers that she is everything.
It’s about people who hate and distrust and misunderstand one another and then end up needing one another to survive.
It’s about us.
I’m ready to launch Song of All Songs on August 28. I’m ready to tell you a story I believe in.
The three books I’ve read most recently seem to follow a theme. Maybe you’ll see it and maybe you won’t.
The first of the trio was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, a best-selling Oprah’s choice story about America’s most tortured long-term immigrants, those brought from Africa against their will, still struggling to claim their place in the 21st century. Second was Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home, a delicately textured tale of the many facets of the lives of several generations of Mexican immigrants. Third was Chaitali Sen’s The Pathless Sky, set in an unnamed country that might be Lebanon, a love story fraught with intergenerational responsibility and guilt and political conflict.
These are stories about how people struggle to build lives for themselves amid circumstances they cannot control – slavery, racism, poverty, violence, migration, and political turmoil. There are a thousand stories like these being lived out by real people every day and every day we sigh and turn our backs and say if only things were different. Every day people are leaving homes and families, going to prison or to foreign lands where they are treated like criminals or live in the shadows. They leave behind parents and lovers and childhoods and dreams. They go in search of happiness, just a little bit of happiness, just a little something salvaged from a bittersweet past, a little something to offer their children.
I strongly recommend all three of these books. Read them in any order you like. It’s a repeating cycle.
We’re All In This Together… 36 x 18, $650
Let’s get one thing straight: America is not a white country and never has been. In the first instance, it was settled by immigrants from Asia. We call these people “Native Americans” and they had established several thriving civilizations throughout the Americas long before Europeans ever set foot here. In the year of Columbus’ momentous “discovery”, the largest city in the world was Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital in central Mexico. There were also smaller cities across the North American Midwest, integrated with one another by extensive trade networks. Spanish explorers reported on these cities, most of which had disappeared by the time the English and French arrived, due to the spread of diseases brought in by the Spaniards.
When scores of disinherited younger sons of English lords came on the scene, seeking to establish their own lordships in the New World, they found the country very unlike the British Isles, so they began using slave labor to work their fields and herd their cattle. But the slaves were not just for labor. Have you ever asked yourself what a bunch of Englishmen knew about raising rice and cotton? The answer is clear: Absolutely nothing. The experts in raising rice and cotton – and also the experts in running cattle in open ranges – were the Africans. So it wasn’t just African labor that built this country: It was African agricultural experience and expertise. South Carolina itself – where the recent atrocities at Mother Emanuel Church were perpetrated – was a majority black state for decades (see below). Other regions of America – Texas, for example – were Hispanic before they were ever Anglo, and yet we express surprise that we have so many Spanish speakers and feel that this threatens “our” identity.
Seriously, people. We need to get over ourselves and make friends with the idea that “American” is a many-colored thing. Can we not just appreciate one another?